Naming the Trinity

I have felt for some time that a recovery of ordinate worship and beauty in Christianity lies partly in a robust Trinitarianism. I agree with Chesterton’s remark on the lovelessness that must exist in the monadic religion of Islam:

“THERE is nothing in the least liberal or akin to reform in the substitution of pure monotheism for the Trinity. The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god who is a mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king…If this love of a living complexity be our test, it is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian. For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence)—to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.”

Before the recent kerfuffle over eternal subordinationism broke out, I dipped into some potpourri theology, one of the many many-views books, this time, Two Views on the Trinity (classical vs. social, for those keeping score). Stephen Holmes was particularly enlightening. (I think many Christians are functionally tritheists in their conception of the Godhead – we can be grateful that our faith is God-given and better than our reason.)

But perhaps the best find in that book was a line written in passing by the editor, James Sexton, in his conclusion. He wrote, “One recent effort, perhaps the most serious and game-changing proposal on the table, has been set forth by R. Kendall Soulen, and is rapidly working its way through the trinitarian consciousness of contemporary theologians.” Skeptical but curious, I found and worked my way through Soulen’s The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices.

I was not disappointed. Soulen writes readable prose. His approach is not one of invention, but of discovery. He suggests that Scripture names God in three ways: a theological way, a christological way, and a pneumatological way. Each of these ways, Soulen suggests, corresponds to something in each of the three persons: the Father’s declaration and setting forth of the Triune God’s uniqueness, the Son’s incarnating God’s glory through His presence, and the Spirit’s enlargement and blessing of God’s glory. Each of these ways is “a most appropriate way” of naming God, showing equal ultimacy in oneness and threeness.

Soulen is no innovator. He finds this pattern of naming in the Nicene Creed itself, and demonstrates its wax and wane in various eras of church history. He demonstrates the thesis in Old and New Testaments. His reference to how the name of God was written by scribes, even in New Testament manuscripts, was new to me, and demonstrated a thread in the Christian tradition of which I was unaware.

Some of the exegesis is forced or contrived, but much of it is not. He seems far too tolerant of some feminist theology, though that is not his primary concern in the book. Volume Two of this series will show whether his thoughts lead to heterodoxy or clarify orthodoxy.

Soulen’s book is not a ‘way out’ of discussions of homoousious and hypostases. We should not seek that. What it does is suggest a biblical pattern that has always been in the text, one which can assist us in how we think and speak of the Triune God.

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